adventures in craft beer and real food

Saturday, September 30, 2006


People have asked me why I haven't supported groups like the Organic Consumers' Association or the Family Farm Defenders. These groups have admirable goals but their voice is deleteriously affected by "off topic" opinions.

Before I dish, let me say that I have the greatest respect for these groups when they are "on topic." I owe a debt of gratitude to the Organic Consumers' Association for bringing to my attention a study by the Cornucopia Institute which names brands of milk are labeling their milk "USDA Organic" despite being from industrial farms (i.e. a violation of 205.239.1-2 of the National Organic Program regulation). I respect the Family Farm Defenders for their opposition to industrial scale farms, rBGH, genetic modification of food products, and the conditions which favor BSE.

The mission statement of these groups is as follows
Organic Consumers' Association: The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is an online and grassroots non-profit public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability. The OCA deals with crucial issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability and other key topics.
Family Farm Defenders: Our mission is to create a farmer-controlled and consumer-oriented food and fiber system, based upon democratically controlled institutions that empower farmers to speak for and respect themselves in their quest for social and economic justice. FFD has worked to create opportunities for farmers to join together in new cooperative endeavors, form a mutual marketing agency, and forge alliances with consumers through providing high quality food products while returning a fair price to farmers.

It would seem odd, then, that these groups would go out on a limb to do things that are politically controversial, completely unrelated to their mission statements, and divisive.

Example one. The Organic Consumers' Association links to an article written by Heather Wokusch for the progressive opinion website Common Dreams in which she intones -- completely without evidence -- that Karl Rove was personally responsible for the anthrax attacks following the September 11 attacks as well as the nerve agent scare on Capitol Hill earlier this year. She goes on to suggest that the Karl Rove might use "some form of bioweapons attack," invade Iran, or capture bin Laden in October to rally the conservative vote for the November mid-term elections.

Example two. The Organic Consumers' Association links to an article written by Allan Uthman for the leftist website AlterNet whose mission involves opposition to the "right wing media machine" and building a "progressive echo chamber" that argues that that the US is becoming a police state based upon ten current events. He argues that the confluence of everything from "touchscreen voting machines" to "signing statements" (i.e. executive orders) to the prosecution of "high-ranking whistleblowers" (i.e. the polite term for someone who leaks information that you find useful or with whom you agree) is "becoming a police state."

Example three. Alongside books with clearly applicable titles like "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter" and "Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Lawn into a Garden" there are titles with no applicability like "The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq" (the cover of which sports a comic image of "King George") and "Towers of Deception: the Media Cover-up of 9/11" (which argues that Bush was personally responsible for the 9/11 attacks). These are books with extraordinarily controversial content that doesn't apply to the OCA's mission, yet the OCA endorses them anyway.

Example four. Family Farm Defenders has endorsed the pacifist organization Farms Not Arms. This organization believes that resources spent toward martial causes is "misappropriated" and "wasted" because it could be used for ending "poverty, injustice, and religious intolerance." Interestingly, this group is officially endorsed by George Naylor, the president of the Organic Consumers' Association. I consider pacifism a radical political idea, and one that is extraordinarily divisive.

Example five. When Anna Lappé spoke at the Food for Thought Festival in Madison a few weeks ago, she shared a story in which she verbally sucker punched food scientists and made numerous attacks against "white men". (In the interests of transparency, please note that I'm a professional chemist working in industry. My opinion on this matter is thus biased. I'm also male and am as proud of it as any feminist is of being female.) She relates a story in which she obtained a press pass to visit a scientific conference on industrially processed foods. Being someone interested in real food, she was disturbed that each attendee praised industrial foods to a panel of like-minded scientists. So disturbed, in fact, that she asked the panel of food scientists why, if their products were so safe, a major company that wasn't in attendance at the conference paid a south-east asian country several million dollars to by-pass requisite food safety testing before their product could be imported. When the panel didn't have a coherent response and she was evicted from the conference, Lappé felt vindicated in her view of industrial food being unsafe and unwilling to have a dialog with the public. To great laughs, Lappé told the Food for Thought audience that she was told that her question was "off topic." If her anecdote demonstrates anything, it's that she's too eager to draw negative conclusions of entities that are the "bad guys" according to her weltanschauung. If an antievolution activist (presumably a "white male" from Kansas) asked a pointed question that favored creationism at a conference of evolutionary scientists, Lappé would probably applaud conference staff for evicting the member for being "off topic" and confrontational. When she does the exact same thing, however, she paints herself as a victim and a heroic crusader standing up against the Man. I don't think she fully understands that food companies are businesses. She wants to "have a dialog" with these companies, but she doesn't seem to realize that these companies would have to pay someone to have a dialog back to her. I'm not sure she'd appreciate it if Monsanto would call her up where she works and ask what temperature her thermostat is set to, or how may gallons of gas she's used to promote her books, or what the environmental consequences of manufacturing the ink for her book might be.

Please understand that I'm not a policy strategist. But I would think that if I were going to promote a cause, I'd want to get as many people on my side as possible. I'd put my argument forward in its most pointed, most basic state. That is, I'd do what Habitat for Humanity does. Habitat founder Millard Fuller believes in what he calls the "Theology of the Hammer." That is, whatever religious, political, or personal beliefs you have, everyone can agree that no one should be forced to be homeless. Everyone can find common ground by taking up a hammer for a common cause to confront a common problem. It doesn't matter if you're a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist. It doesn't matter if you voted for George Bush or John Kerry or Ralph Nader. Everyone agrees that it's a bad thing that some people are forcibly homeless.

I shouldn't have to sign on to nutcase conspiracy theories, pacifism, political pessimism, or be ashamed of being a "white male" scientist to join others in expressing my support of real food.

Similarly, I would think that everyone can agree that food should be nutritious, plentiful, delicious, healthy, and ethical. The Organic Consumers' Association and the Family Farm Defenders agree, too. But I'm withholding my support until they dedicate themselves solely to the promotion and defense of real food -- and stop clowning around.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Tasting Notes: Fraoch Heather Ale

In honor of my friend Heather's twenty-first birthday, I sipped at one of the world's oldest and rarest beers. Before Humulus lupulus became the bittering ingredient de rigueur of beer, people were making beer with what ingredients that they could find on hand. And in Scotland, where hops can't grow well anyway, this meant using the flowers of the abundant heather plant.

This beer style was nearly forgotten until homebrew shop owner Bruce Williams took a gamble with a family recipe for "leann fraoich" (heather ale in the gaelic language) and began brewing in Argyll. Before long, he expanded his operation by contractin with the family-owned Maclay Brewery in Alloa. Williams opened a quaint new brew house in Strathaven in 1997, but he still brews some of his beer under contract with Maclay's.

Only a handful of brewers have taken up the challenge of brewing a beer with heather, instead of hops. This is, no doubt, a challenge because the heather can be added as bittering hops (during the boil) and finishing hops (at the end of the boil and sparging). It's easy to imagine that the methods of brewing with hops are well known, and that any brewer who forgoes them for heather is placed on a fairly unforgiving learning curve with few peers to help.

Fraoch Heather Ale, being the standard bearer of a re-emerging beer style, promised to be a good introduction to the Scottish tradition of ancient herbed ales.

The bottle bursts open with a gentle breeze of floral aromas. Upon further inspection, the smell is extremely reminscent of walking into a greenhouse filled with flowers. A number of very well-defined flower aromas grace the nose. Underneath the obvious, however, there's a layer of pleasant grassy, earthy, and hay-like aromas. Strangely, the beer has a sweet smell to it that made me worry that the ale would be cloying and undrinkable to my pallate. Once I put my nose into the glass, I resolved the sweetness as a fruity plum aroma.

The beer itself is a brilliant orange-gold color when held up to lamp light. The turbidity of the ale is a striking feature, helping to accentuate the color and making it seem slightly darker than it actually is. Fraoch is only lightly carbonated, and thus doesn't raise much of a head. I think this is appropriate for the style.

The beer opens with a surprisingly sweet sensation in the front of the mouth. This rapidly gives way to an ephemeral taste of bitterness all along the tongue. The nature of the bitterness is threw me a bit off guard, as it wasn't a hop-like bitterness. Rather, it was an extremely dense floral bitterness that couldn't be more potent if you chewed on flowers. After the bitterness begins to recede, a slightly dry sensation is left in the back of the mouth. This effect of flavors rippling across the pallate, teasing it every step along the way, makes it a very drinkable beverage. But because of the bitterness, it certainly is not sessionable. Despite a lack of carbonation, the beer fizzes on the tongue slightly which leaves the pallate refreshed after each sip.

The bitterness was held in place by a robust Scottish malt flavor that is by itself slightly reminiscent of much heavier Scotch ales. The maltiness dominated the floral aroma when the beer was chilled out of my refrigerator. As it warmed up slightly in the glass, the floral aromas really opened up and outweighed the malt flavors. This flavor transition was interesting, of course, but I felt that the beer somehow lacked balance as a result.

There's a slight minerality to the flavor, which helps bring out the other flavors in the ale. At 5% abv, I was happy that I didn't taste or feel any ethanol.

Despite not being a "real ale" (i.e. one that is cask-conditioned), it was an interesting and delightful beer on which to reflect on the origins of brewing. And the unique combination of floral aromas and biting bitterness makes this beer as unique as it is enchanting.